Why electoral reform and Black Lives Matter go together

In a fair, free and open society, we would expect the makeup of our parliament and councils to reflect the demographic makeup of the area in which they serve, however this is not always the case. When some groups are over-represented, and others not, this can be symptomatic of systemic inequality, a potentially vicious cycle where an under-representation of voices from those the victims of this inequality means solutions to address it are not championed and prioritised.

By design, First Past The Post is designed to amplify many small majorities into a large majority on a representative body. By and large, many consider this feature to be unfair, but analysed through the lens of a system which already causes inequality, it also means the amplification of inequality such that those who either benefit by, or at least not penalised by, such a system are then over-represented on our electoral bodies.

This flaw of First Past The Post is one that’s not easy to rectify. When looking through a lens of gender, the mechanism of the All Women Shortlist was created to address this inequality, and by one mechanism it appears to have been effective – certainly within our parliamentary party, women have not only achieved parity, but have exceeded it! And in parliament as a whole, female representation has continued to rise. But the All Women Shortlist also has many critics, and puts into tension an individual freedom by suppressing a free and open selection process from all suitable candidates, with the systemic freedom of removing hidden barriers to entry for all genders.

At best, the All Women Shortlist is the least worst option for addressing gender inequality under First Past The Post. If we applied the same process to electing members of the BAME community, or other under-represented communities, such as through an All BAME Shortlist, then that tension only increases. A good solution is one which removes systemic oppression of one group but not at the cost of suppressing another, as building a more equal society should not be a zero sum game. A truly equal society benefits all.

It’s clear therefore that under First Past The Post, with its attribute of amplifying small majorities, eliminating racial injustice is hard to achieve. If we elected our local and national governments under a party list based system (which the Scottish and Welsh Parliaments already have a form of), then it becomes easier to resolve the tension that is inherent with an All Women Shortlist – the suppression of the individual is significantly reduced if you apply a quota to your list as it doesn’t completely eliminate any one group, but the lifting of others still happens to a much greater extent.

* Chris Northwood (she/her) is a councillor in Manchester, deputy group leader of the Manchester Liberal Democrats and member of Federal Council.

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  • John Marriott 11th Jun '20 - 7:25pm

    You are preaching to the converted, Mr Northwood. However, getting the electorate interested is a challenge that nobody has met so far. Also, beware of what you wish for. The alternative to FPTP will probably mean coalitions, where compromise is the name of the game, which is something that the purists whose contributions litter LDV seem incapable of entertaining.

  • UK (FPTP): 220/650 [33.8%] female MPs (still far too low, of course!).
    Ireland (STV): 36/160 female TDs [22.5%].

    Electoral systems are not determinative of diverse candidate outcomes.

  • Chris Northwood 11th Jun '20 - 9:37pm

    @Pedantic: yes, which is why I discuss the idea of quotas in a party list system in contrast to the idea of restricted shortlists under FPTP, rather than just the electoral system by itself

  • John Marriott 11th Jun '20 - 9:40pm

    And your point?

  • Nonconformistradical 12th Jun '20 - 8:45am

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3) 12th Jun ’20 – 8:08am

    Well said

  • The allegation that campaigning for electoral reform simply reflects Lib Dem self-interest is primarily the cry of the Labour and Conservative Parties. Whether true or not we need a repeatable version of the celebrated Mandy Rice-Davies line …they would say that wouldn’t they.

  • John Marriott 12th Jun '20 - 9:13am

    @Ian Sanderson (RM3)
    As ‘Pedantic’ doesn’t appear to want to engage, I think I have to thank you for answering on his behalf. If we assume that he IS referring to the imbalance of male to female in Parliament, although, given the current ‘trans’ debate, perhaps we should add a third category, changing the voting system won’t alter that greatly, if at all. It surely depends on how many women stand or are allowed to stand for election in the first place, doesn’t it?

    As far as I am concerned, the sex, or sexuality of a candidate for parliament or any other job for that matter is irrelevant. What is important to me is their experience of life, their philosophy, their willingness to practise what they preach, their sincerity, their sense of humour and, lastly, if all else fails, the colour of their rosette. If only we could find a Lib Dem candidate with most of those qualities around here in Lincolnshire, I might be tempted not to go to the polling station and to spoil my ballot again, when the opportunity arises.

    I support PR because, whichever system you adopt, even the dreaded ‘Alternative Vote’, has got to be better than the ‘winner takes all’ system we have at the moment. OK it might mean living under nearly permanent coalition governments; but it doesn’t seem to have done the post war Germans that much harm, at least economically, does it?

  • Peter Martin 12th Jun '20 - 9:25am

    In principle it is possible to design an electoral system which would give various sections of the population their “fair share” of votes. We can see that happen in various African countries where political parties are often tribally based. We have it in Northern Ireland too. It tends to create a poorly functioning democracy. No matter how bad governments might be, they’ll be re-elected time after time because voters don’t switch religions, or their ethnicity, and so rarely switch sides.

    The EU would potentially have the same problem if an EU Govt were to be elected from the European Parliament. The danger would be that divisions of left and right would fall away as the electorate voted for their nationally based party to look after their national interest.

    So be careful what you wish for. Having a Parliament with ethnically based parties might “reflect the demographic makeup” of the country ‘better’ than it does at present, but just what does ‘better’ mean? In practice it will likely mean we have strong parties of the far right too which openly stand on a platform of white English nationalism.

  • It’s a 102 years ago now. It’s a case of own petard hoist with, but Lloyd George and Co could have had PR in the 1918 Representation of the People Act. It was discussed but voted down. The rest is, as they say, an own goal.

  • Peter Hirst 12th Jun '20 - 9:46am

    You could say the same thing about tactical voting and third party squeezes; they are a result of a corrupt system. Far better to introduce a system such as STV that allows more voter choice from an unfiltered list of all candidates. Ireland can cope with it so hopefully we can also.

  • Laurence Cox 12th Jun '20 - 11:50am


    The objection to a Party list system for public elections, and note that the Party Lists for the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Senedd are there specifically to counter the effects of FPTP; neither elects all its representatives through Party lists; is that it puts the order of names on the list (and therefore their chances of being elected) in the hands of the Party. While we allow our members to choose the order of candidates on the list, AFAIK this is not a requirement.

    As far as our own internal elections are concerned there is already a requirement in the Federal Constitution for 40% of those elected to be self-identifying as male or non-binary and 40% as female or non-binary (Article 2.5) and where ten or more are elected for 10% to be from under-represented ethnic minorities, 10% disabled people, and 10% under-represented sexual orientations and gender identities (Article 2.6). We have even had an all-disabled Parliamentary shortlist where Stephen Lloyd was selected.

  • Matt (Bristol) 12th Jun '20 - 12:28pm

    Totally agree with the article, and have been depressed that this hasn’t been said more widely. Particularly from the Labour left.

    Where it doesn’t go far enough, in my opinion, is in pointing out that the problem of proportionality is worse in local government, where the electoral system is worse than Westminster (2 or 3 member Block voting, not FPTP).

    The discussions that are going on about local control of policing, unconscious discrimination in staffing allocations causing exposure to covid-19, and the symbolism of statuary, are all local conversations related to local population groups and local divisions, which local government is unable to effectively manage due to the unproportionality of its voting system.

  • Denis Mollison 12th Jun '20 - 1:08pm

    @Matt Our party’s biggest success on electoral reform in recent years was to get STV for Council elections in Scotland, which indeed made a big improvement, breaking up most of the “one-party states”. NI already had STV for Councils (as it does for its Assembly, and did have for Euro-elections). Wales has a Bill going through that will at least give Councils the option to adopt STV, and might yet get strengthened to make it for all Councils. Wales is also considering the McAllister Report, which recommended changing from AMS to STV for their Senedd; the Report had increasing diversity as a major aim (although the Senedd already has the highest proportion of women among UK Parliaments/Assemblies – I think it’s been in the range 40-50% since it started in 1999).

  • Denis Mollison 12th Jun '20 - 1:18pm

    Thanks to Chris Northwood for writing this article.
    Liberal Democrats for Electoral Reform are organising a session with the Green Lib Dems as part of their online conference and festival on the evening of Monday 22 June, with Klina Jordan of Make Votes Matter and our own party spokesperson, Wendy Chamberlain MP.

    Wendy got an adjournment debate in Parliament on Electoral Reform on Monday 8 June, and made an excellent speech. It can be viewed on Parliament TV (starting at 4:40’20”) or you can read the transcript in Hansard.

  • Denis Mollison 12th Jun '20 - 1:42pm

    PS The Green Lib Dem online conference and festival is at https://greenlibdems.org.uk/en/page/2020-gld-virtual-conference

  • Peter Martin 12th Jun '20 - 4:20pm

    I’m not quite sure how it came about, but somehow we ended up with the d’Hondt system of proportional representation for UK European elections.

    If you want PR it’s not a bad system. Even though hardly anyone has any clue just how it works! And, yes, Lib Dems did reasonably well out of it. You came second. But you also know who came first! How much good did that do for BEM voters?

    That’s what will likely happen again and again if Lib Dems get their way with voting reform. So we have to ask if this is really what we want.

  • John Marriott 12th Jun '20 - 5:17pm

    @Peter Martin
    I gather from ploughing through your many and varied contributions to LDV that you might just be a Labour supporter. If this is the case, I would be interested in knowing which version of the Labour Party meets with your approval. It would appear that, when push comes to shove regarding our voting system, you might just prefer the status quo, or have I misinterpreted what you have written?

    I suppose that, if this is the case, you might be an advocate of the ‘one last heave‘ theory, whereby the Labour Party gains power as the largest minority party, which, if that last heave works, is what is likely to happen under FPTP.

    As a supporter of PR I can honestly say that my motivation is not, nor has it ever been, to place the Lib Dems in power. What I want to see is, for example, if a minority party, which the Lib Dems are always likely to be, gets 8% of the popular vote, it then gets roughly 8% of the parliamentary seats, no more and no less. How you get there and what system you use is of no interest to me. Now, what’s wrong with that? I call that ‘fair votes’. Are you really happy to see the present government, with around 43% of the popular vote, end up with a Commons majority of 80?

  • Peter Martin 12th Jun '20 - 10:38pm

    @ John Marriott,

    Yes, of course, I understand the fairness argument. N% of votes should mean N % of seats and all that. But there are unintended consequences. It allows parties to come from nowhere to a position of power very quickly. The Weimar republic had an almost perfect system of PR and we all know how that ended up.

    Lib Dems seem to think that the party system will somehow remain as it is but they’ll get a fairer share of the seats which will allow them to have a moderating influence on the two main parties. But it very likely won’t especially if there is economic turmoil ahead. The most likely beneficiaries will be the far right.

    I doubt if Lib Dems would want that any more than I do. It’s really nothing to do with party allegiance.

  • John Marriott 13th Jun '20 - 8:42am

    @Peter Martin
    What happened under the Constitution of the Weimar Republic and what happens today in Israel’s Knesset was why, after the initial Federal elections in 1949 threw up a slew of parties, the 5% ‘Sperrklausel’ rule was introduced by West Germany for the next elections in 1953. Being the clever gentleman that you are, there is surely no need for me to explain to you what that’s all about.

    I’ve always felt that, if any party can get 5% of the popular vote, it has a right to parliamentary representation. In that way, any questionable views they may hold can at least be up for public scrutiny. I quite like the German voting system, where half the MPs are directly elected and half from Party lists, which is usually the way that a party like the liberal FDP gets its members into the Bundestag. Roy Jenkins’ proposals were similar, I believe; but Blair kicked them into the long grass.

    I see that you are not prepared to confirm or deny your political allegiance, if, indeed, you have any. If you are a Labour supporter then it would appear from what you have said that, when push comes to shove, you would stick to the status quo and take your chances with the present ‘winner takes all’ lottery that will likely always throw up what in terms of percentage will be a ‘minority government’.

  • Daniel Walker 13th Jun '20 - 9:32am

    @Peter Martin “ It allows parties to come from nowhere to a position of power very quickly.

    If people vote for them. The counter-example is the 1983 UK General election; 25% of the population voted Alliance; they got 23 seats; 27% voted Labour¹; they got 209. – FPTP doesn’t (usually) allow a third party to get anywhere even if a large number of people vote for them. That is not democracy.

    The Weimar republic had an almost perfect system of PR and we all know how that ended up

    Yes. And most democracies in Europe (not just the EU) use some form of PR, usually some form of Party List, and haven’t collapsed; Indeed, only the UK, France, and Belarus don’t.

    I know neither you nor I like party lists, but that’s why LibDem policy is for STV; it allows for Independent candidates, and allows supporters of one wing of a party to favour that wing’s representatives or supporters of, say, TUSC to vote honestly rather than worry about “letting the Tories in”—you supported AV, so you agree with that bit!

    The most likely beneficiaries will be the far right.

    They may indeed get representatives, but only if people vote for them (although I note under STV you generally need decent support in a constituency to get a representative, and thresholds are not uncommon in party-list systems) Ireland has many independents in the Dail, but no organised far-right group has TDs (I don’t know about all of the independents, to be fair) Only five countries in Europe have the far-right getting > 20% of the vote in national elections. (They tend to do better in EU Parliament elections, probably because of the lower turnout, but that’s not a fault of the electoral system)

    Part of the appeal of populism, of either the left or the right, is the “You’re not being listened to by them! Your votes are ignored!” line. Under FPTP, they are ignored. Make it a lie.

  • Daniel Walker 13th Jun '20 - 9:40am

    @John Marriott “I see that you are not prepared to confirm or deny your political allegiance, if, indeed, you have any

    I’m no fan of Peter, but he’s he’s not hidden that he’s a Labour member, to be fair.

  • John Marriott 13th Jun '20 - 10:25am

    @Daniel Walker
    Thanks for putting me right. I obviously need to read Mr Martin’s comments more carefully. On your comment about France not using PR, at least as far as its Presidential election is concerned, it’s not a straight vote. They do have a run off between the two candidates, who get the most votes in the first round.

    As far as which system of PR is the purest, don’t get bogged down with pros and cons. Just agree that FPTP has to go. That would have been the question I would have put to the electorate at the start of the coalition, not ‘are you in favour of AV?’. If you want to be really clever and treat the electorate as grown ups, why not offer them two questions? The first would be something like ‘Are you in favour of changing how we vote‘. The second would be ‘If your answer is Yes, then please rank the following alternative systems in order of preference’. Probably too much to ask; but we live in hope.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Jun '20 - 1:24pm

    @John Marriott
    French elections – they use 2 rounds for local elections as well. There is a 2nd round run-off – postponed this year due to Covid-19


  • Daniel Walker 13th Jun '20 - 1:52pm

    @John Marriott “On your comment about France not using PR, at least as far as its Presidential election is concerned, it’s not a straight vote. They do have a run off between the two candidates, who get the most votes in the first round.

    True. It’s not PR though. It’s better than our system, but it’s not PR.

    I agree with your two-stage referendum plan, though I doubt the Tories would have gone along with it.

  • Peter Martin 19th Jun '20 - 1:25pm

    We read that Electoral Reform and Black Lives Matter go together. Then the 15th we had John King saying that Brexit and Covid19 were a lethal combination.

    We’ve not yet seen articles on the combinations of Covid19 and Black Lives Matter, or Black Lives Matter and Brexit. I could probably find an article linking Brexit with Electoral Reform but I’m sure another one wouldn’t do any harm!

    Just a few ideas for anyone needing to think up a suitable topic for LDV!

  • Peter Martin 19th Jun '20 - 1:32pm

    PS I should have also included the pairing of Covid 19 and Electoral Reform. Forgot about that one!

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